Delicate and assured, the stories in My Escapee illuminate unseen forces in women's lives: the shameful thought, the stifled hope, the subterranean stresses of marriage, friendship, and family. Grappling with lost memories, escaped time, the longing to be loved, and the instinct for autonomy, the stories peer inside their characters' minds to their benign delusions, their triumphs and defeats.
A girl taking a test for admittance to a selective school finds that what she loves most of all is the ordinary. A lonely young woman, sick of being sick, swaps places with her nurse. A college student deploys her more charming roommate to discover the secret rituals of an all-male club on campus. And in the title story, a woman in a nursing home receives mysterious missives from her longtime lover recalling fragments of their old life together.
About the Author
Corinna Vallianatos's stories have appeared in Tin House, McSweeney's, A Public Space, Gettysburg Review, Epoch, and elsewhere. The recipient of a fellowship from The MacDowell Colony, she lives in Burlington, Vermont.
For Corinna Vallianatos's public appearances, please see her website at http://www.corinnavallianatos.com/news/
Read an Excerpt
By Corinna Vallianatos
University of Massachusetts PressCopyright © 2012 Corinna Vallianatos
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMy Escapee
* * *
I do not know where Margaret is. She sends me a brochure describing a cruise to the Galapagos, on the back of which she's written, Shall we pack? But I can't travel anymore. I have caretakers. In my eighty-eight years, I have never been with a man.
When we were young, Margaret and I flew in a small airplane over the red mountains of Afghanistan. She had red hair then, too. It sprang rowdily from her leather helmet. We didn't need men, we had our permeable selves. The humped mountains were as intimate as a tangled blanket on a bed. I knew that if the plane were to sputter and sink I would accept it, the softness below us made it possible, even tempting.
Now I'm terrified of death. It's everywhere in this rest home, woven into the pattern of the wallpaper, the jellied peach paisleys. The carpets are vacuumed multiple times daily. There is something obliterating about such cleanliness! My caretakers are Carla, a nurse who delivers baby aspirin, vitamin E, and Margaret's missives to me on a domed plastic tray; and Fellow, my nephew, who takes me to his home for lunch, or on other excursions. He calls me Aunt Ginny. "My name is Genevieve," I tell him again and again. "I would like a martini, and salted nuts in the bowl that came to be in our possession so graciously."
Why does this make him laugh? The bowl belonged to a little girl who sold lemonade in my and Margaret's neighborhood on the Cape. She kept mint sprigs in it. One day, Margaret bought the whole pitcher from her because the poor thing had been outside in the hot sun for hours without a single customer. She insisted on giving Margaret the bowl in return. Some might say a child is not to be trusted with a decision like that, but Margaret accepted her gift. It is a pretty little blue-tinted bowl. Fellow says he doesn't have it. I suppose he broke it out of some clumsiness.
Living a long time solves only one of life's mysteries, and that is what it is like to be very old. But even at eighty-eight, there are more years to be had. I admit I grasp for them. A runniness as of uncooked eggs in the neck and breasts, a tentativeness toward food, a dislike of the cinema—this is what I once imagined of my eighth decade. In reality, it has been confusing. Fellow tells me I began wandering, that Margaret was helpless to stop me. I suspect I was simply bird-watching, tracking cries and calls. Wandering purposeful and wondrous, like the great poets. It doesn't matter. Margaret is elsewhere. We lived and laughed and cooked together and slept in twin beds in the same cool room, and now I can't make out the postmark on her letters.
The rest home is in Yellow Springs, Ohio. I went to college here, as did Fellow, who lives here still. We sit on a bench downtown and watch the children (really, college students) stroll by. I am amazed. Women who live with other women now do their very best to look like men. Some of them are cute in a rumpled way, with their Buddy Holly eyeglasses and porkpie hats, but for the most part they are terribly unappealing. Of course, they don't care what my ogling eyes tell them. Or notice that I am ogling at all. I am only a figure in a maroon windbreaker, sitting folded up on a park bench, dissolving into the daylight. (Accompanied by Fellow, a square-faced middle-aged man, which makes me even more invisible.) I want to tell them what they are throwing away. The flowering pubis, the stems their legs. Beauty that could change their lives. They will find out one day.
Margaret possessed the most magnificent clavicles, the left of which was broken at birth and healed on its own.
Still, I imagine that beneath the flannel and military trousers of these young ladies there might be something pleasing, and that imagining occupies me. Does my mouth gape? Fellow interrupts my reverie.
"Aunt Ginny," he says, "tell me about—" and he lists some inane feature of the town. Oh, the changes time wreaks is what he wants me to say in a voice scored with cracks. I have noticed that the younger generation derives an odd satisfaction in listening to their elders bemoan such things, when more often than not the elders have brought about the changes themselves.
This time he asks about the Tastee Freeze. "Were cows really kept out back?"
"It was out back I was kissed for the first time."
He doesn't want to hear this. His face draws pleasantly closed and he begins transporting muffin crumbs from his lap to his mouth with a moistened finger.
I reach for the memory. Mouth sodden with lipstick, ruffled blouse wrenched loose from the waistband of my skirt. Sweet instigator.
"What was the good girl's name. We were reading poetry together. Sappho. What I, in my heart's madness, most desire ..." Fellow is staring at his feet, but I don't want to be ignored. What is secret might simply disappear. "When we were done, we fed each other malts with long silver spoons," I say.
"It sounds very spirited. There was a lot of fellowship then, wasn't there, Aunt Ginny?"
"Antioch College was a serious place."
"Oh, I know." He gestures at the undergraduates shambling past us three abreast, rubbing waist fat, their belts studded like dog collars. "I wish I could shield you from this." He thinks I can't take knowing what the college has become, that it's plummeted in the ratings, the alumnae no longer distinguished, and in truth, it used to bother me. When I said something about it to Margaret she replied, "Let the kids riot." I wish they could do so more becomingly.
Fellow looks at his watch. "We'd better get you back!"
We walk down Xenia Avenue, past shops that sell Peruvian shawls and Guatemalan coffee beans and German sandals. I press my forehead up against the glass windows: the shawls are spread like wings, the bags of coffee beans filled to spilling, the sandals posed as if about to take a step. Everything changed by the motion it purportedly makes. Everything gaudy and graceful. I think about finding these objects in their place of origin, picking them up and handling them carefully, even tenderly, and deciding not to buy them because being in their country was enough. But here in Ohio buying them is all you can do.
The front doors of the rest home glide open at my approach. Carla reminds me, with an extended finger, which hallway to turn down to get to my room. My bed is made with a scratchy rose-colored comforter and two flat, perfunctory pillows. People think the old and infirm won't notice—that all we need is a predecessor to a coffin. I lie down. Perhaps they are right.
My nephew's a bachelor. I have recently become single again. He says he gave Margaret a choice: she could either stay in our house on the Cape, or join me in a double room here. But I think she's somewhere else entirely, perhaps traveling again. We traveled a lot in our sixty-three years together. It was a way of creating the proper environment for Margaret, who chafed against routine. She was at her best with someone else's scenery speeding past her, past the rough reflection of her own face.
From the room next door comes a thump and a wail. It is Jean Pritchard, who has likely stepped on the hem of her robe and toppled to the floor. She rooms with her husband, Marty. I burrow under the comforter and place a pillow over my ear. My hearing is still keen, and I don't want to have to listen to Marty's soft encouragement and Jean's answering frustration. I see them in the dining hall, she staring into her bowl of cereal, he squinting through trifocals at the local paper. There is something terribly melancholy about married couples here together. Their quarrels and disregard of each other are on display; they have no privacy. No, I'm glad Margaret chose differently.
I've been here for a summer. It's September now, I believe. When was the last time she touched me? A night in April when I woke to her sitting on the edge of my bed? Her face so close it was unobservable? She was not gentle. She never was. Once, long ago, after our exertions, she noticed a few spots of menstrual blood on her violet silk sheets and incinerated something of mine in retaliation. It was a little tasseled dance program from Antioch in which there were penciled names of all my young suitors, none of whom, obviously, had much impressed me.
I hit the call button. In a moment, Carla comes in.
"Can I get something for you?"
I shake my head quickly.
"Is that a 'no,' or a 'I don't remember what I needed'?"
She straightens my pillow. "Well, you can tell yourself that if you don't remember, it probably wasn't very important," she says.
I suspect it is just the opposite.
The next envelope from Margaret contains a patch of flowered blue cotton. The flowers have three petals and stumpy curved stems like commas. The attached note says, From your very favorite dress. Do you remember where you wore it?
She's testing me. I sniff the cloth and run it along my cheek. I remove my dungarees, which exactly match the color of the patch. Then, in my underwear, whose crotch cradles a pad for little leaks, I fetch my sewing kit from the closet. Yes, leaks, but they are little. I'm sitting cross-legged on the ground sewing the patch onto my pants when Fellow walks in.
"Aunt Ginny," he says loudly.
If I had poked myself, Fellow would have taken my sewing kit just as he confiscated, at the very first red nick, a beautiful set of steak knives with marbled handles that I used to peel apples. Luckily I haven't.
"Hello, nephew." Why must he stare so? His emotions are not agile. They are slow, leaden, unbecoming. I resist comparing now with then, but in my day people certainly knew how to be more tactful.
"Isn't there someone here who can mend things for you?" he asks.
"I'm doing a little decorative work."
He opens a dresser drawer and rummages in my clothing. "Please dress yourself," he says, tossing a pair of plaid slacks at me.
First, I must remove my belt from the dungarees, which I do waveringly. "Do you know what I read in the newspaper today?" I ask. "In Rio de Janeiro, women have just won the right to single-sex subway cars. They'd had enough of being groped."
Fellow sighs and stoops to help me with the belt, which has become entangled in my pants loops, sly thing.
"Have you ever groped someone?" I ask.
"Of course not," he says, yanking. The belt whips free. It is made of some purposeful fake substance.
"You can tell me."
"Okay. Yes. I used to be a terrible groper. I groped on elevators, in the hallways leading to restrooms, on small aircraft."
"Really?" I say, stunned.
"I groped students, students' significant others, faculty, janitorial staff. I'm so relieved to finally admit it," he says.
He doesn't look relieved. He's smiling stupidly. "When did you stop?" I ask.
"I'm just joking, Aunt Ginny."
"Because you ought to. Stolen touch is hardly touch at all."
"Joking, Aunt Ginny. Remember jokes?"
He is offering me something complicated, something I don't want. I avert my gaze, pick up a bottle of perfume from the dresser, spray a little on my wrists.
Fellow says, "That's deodorant. It goes here."
He touches his armpits. I put the bottle down. Toiletries will cross me again and again. A fine white ribbon wrapped round a spool in a little case, for instance. When I tied it in my hair, Carla told me it was for my teeth. It had been hard to handle, slippery, and I'd not managed to make a bow but was fond of the result, anyway. Someone else stared back at me from the mirror that day, someone with a flair for herself.
"Let's say hello to Algebra," I suggest.
We find the cat sleeping in a sunny spot in the lobby, right where it would be easy to trip over her. She's supposed to hop on residents' beds and allow herself to be stroked—thereby lowering blood pressure, slowing the hammering of an unhealthy heart—whenever anyone slurs "kitty-kitty" at her. In reality, she dozes in the lobby all day long, then escapes outside to hunt for chipmunks at night. She shirks her therapeutic duties. I suppose there would be less general respect for her if she didn't.
I sit on the carpet next to her and coax her into standing on her hind legs, front paws folded limply against her chest like a dog begging for a bone.
"That doesn't look right," Fellow says.
I need to think about the scrap of cloth Margaret sent to me. I need a cup of coffee and a table on which to prop my elbows. Once, I had enjoyed café society, glare of mahogany, svelte sipping figures, intentions hidden beneath other, lesser intentions ...
"If you'll excuse me," I say.
He waves good-bye. Only when he's turned away do I allow myself to imagine his large hands reaching out to prod and pinch, to rip off something that's not his. "Scat," I tell Algebra. The cat arches her back and makes a mewing sound, a protestation.
In the dining room, the tables have been pushed to one side and a member of the kitchen staff is mopping the floor. She is young but not too young, and her face possesses the stubborn vulnerability of a person engaged in physical labor. She turns, bends, and I can see the V shape of her underwear. I wonder what color it is. Something pale and precious, no doubt. Quit, run, there are other places where you can do other things! I want to call out to her, but she would just stare at me as if I were raving. Someone else brings coffee and a bib to me, and although a biscotti would have been more welcome, again I hold my tongue. There is never anything to say until it's the wrong time to say anything.
But I must concentrate. The scrap. The dress. Could I have worn it to the governor's mansion the time Margaret was honored for cleaning up all those sand dunes? And I spilled my drink on a Louis XV wing chair? Or to the new seafood place in Wellfleet on a Friday evening when we felt a little festive? And the cook's cigarette smoke floated out of the kitchen? Or to Rosa, our housekeeper's, graduation? And I suffered an attack of indigestion and missed most of the ceremony?
Any of the above.
A few weeks later, a box arrives. I hold it on my lap. Margaret must have taken out her dentures to pack it. They bothered her, and whenever she did anything that required any concentration, she deposited them on a tabletop or a sofa cushion, not bothering to place them in a cup. Miraculously, she never lost them, though of course she was trying to. Once, in a bookstore in Athens, I saw her tear a page from an Agatha Christie novel, rip it into little strips, and line her dentures with it.
When she turned forty, she stopped shaving her legs. At fifty, she let the hourglass shape of her pubic hair grow out. Her sixties brought the dentures. Every now and then a new wart, pink as modeling clay, sprouted from her cheek or chin. None of this bothered me. I always thought she was beautiful. The process of her aging was better known to me than it would have been to a husband, and I was sympathetic to it. It was as if she were playing a little tune on a piano, and as she played each of her fingers slipped down one key and began to make a clamorous, still familiar sound.
I remain mostly physically intact. Compressed, a wary kernel.
"Are you going to open it?" Carla asks, interrupting my daydream. She's delivered the box to me, and stayed to tidy up the bathroom.
"I'd like to go outside," I say.
"Fresh air's scheduled in an hour."
"I can't wait an hour." I gesture around me. The carpet nearly matches the comforter, but doesn't. The blank television screen threatens to explode at the touch of a button with laughter and dancing.
"All right. Briefly."
Outside, I can feel soft needles of sunlight entering my skin. Eight or nine unicycles rest against the side of the building, their seats no larger than the rubber clutches of some canes.
"Oh, the children are visiting!" Carla says.
I'm supposed to be excited by this. The children are a band, a troupe that rides around town on unicycles, hair trailing behind them. They're taught how to ride the unicycle at a local preschool, which starts them off on mattresses at age three. Though they never fall, they might, and this endows them with a terrible forward motion no matter how graceful their pedaling may be. They make me nervous, but other people seem to love them. In her haste to see the children, Carla runs back inside without me. I glance around, tuck the box under my arm, and set off across the parking lot. A straggler, a pale boy, cycles up to me. He extends his arms for balance, rotating forward and back, forward and back.
"Miss Genevieve," he says, "where are you going?"
"Be careful, for god's sake. Concentrate. How do you know my name?"
"Because I visit you. A lot."
Unwanted visitor, forgotten visitor, a figure slumped in light ...
"Little boy, if you tattle on me I'll pop your wheels."
"Wheel," he says, pointing beneath him.
I keep going, crossing a road and passing houses filled with families. Couples holding hands. Mothers pushing babies in strollers. To observe alone the configurations that people make is to experience a liberating kind of loneliness. To not know where you are simply exacerbates this loneliness, buffs it to a shine. Perhaps I'm the only person on earth, I think. Perhaps no one else really exists in proper human form. Only this puzzlement can be real.
Locating the bench where I sat with Fellow is trickier than I anticipated, so I settle for the edge of someone's lawn. After many tries, I sever the tape on the box with my pinky nail. Inside, beneath a mound of Cape Codders (how nice to see that stodgy print again), is a china doll dressed in a lank yellow pinafore. Her name is Greta. She is the one possession from my childhood that's survived, and I used to display her in my and Margaret's bedroom, propping her in a nest of pillows to make certain she didn't topple over and bump her head. Margaret couldn't abide this. She thought that by babying Greta I was indulging something infantile in myself. She did not want children. She was in the world, and didn't care how she'd gotten there or whether it was her duty to open that chute, that fleshy pathway, to someone else. Which was fine with me, because if she had wanted children, she'd have run off with a man. I hold Greta in my lap and smooth my hand over her painted-on hair. Long ago I had a cradle to rock her in.
Excerpted from My Escapee by Corinna Vallianatos Copyright © 2012 by Corinna Vallianatos. Excerpted by permission of University of Massachusetts Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
My Escapee... 1Posthumous Fragments of Veronica Penn... 19Examination... 40Sink Home... 53Salvo... 75Celebrants... 94The Help... 112Privations... 129Shelter... 142A Civilizing Effect... 145
What People are Saying About This
My Escapee is a splendid collection of stories told with admirable compression and variety and humor and quirkiness. The characters are flawed yet appealing, the writer's sensibility a joy to discover. Like a new-found friend, this writer's voice made me feel less alone in the world.
Corinna Vallianatos is a gangbuster talent. She suffuses scenes with the kind of radiant empathy one longs for in a story, and makes such sharp observations that she often startles the reader into laughter. Every sentence in My Escapee is taut and elastic and every story in this wonderful collection sings with both sadness and glee.
These stories are wonderful stirringly imagined, daringly structured, and wise to the ways of the human heart. Corinna Vallianatos can make an entire soul come shining out of the smallest phrase, and she does so again and again, sentence after sentence, on every page of this collection.
With the spare, definitive strokes of Matisse's late portraits, the stories in My Escapee hew precisely to the truth, while rendering a series of expressive and particular female lives. The characters are disoriented, vulnerable, at times dependent on others; they are also determined, defiant, passionate. One admires their self-awareness, one forgives them their imperfections, one feels keenly their isolation. The language is lucid, forceful, in turns unassuming and startling. Read together, these stories navigate an intimate landscape of fault lines, of grottoes of emotions, of stark passages and significant crossings. Vivid, whimsical, and restrained, they introduce a mature voice, an affecting and bracing debut.